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MP opposes call to waive abuse anonymity

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Mark Pettingill (File photograph)

Mark Pettingill would strongly oppose giving the parents of victims of sexual offences the right to waive the anonymity of their children.

The One Bermuda Alliance MP spoke out after Sheelagh Cooper, founder of the Coalition for the Protection of Children, called for the law to be amended so that victims of sexual offences, or their families, could decide whether a convicted offender’s name was made public.

However, Mr Pettingill, the chairman of the joint select committee investigating how the Island deals with sex offenders, was more amenable to the idea of victims waiving their anonymity once they became adults.

“One has to be really careful — with all respect to Sheelagh, who does great work — with giving a parent the right to waive the anonymity of their child,” Mr Pettingill said. “That to my mind is a protection. I would be strongly opposed to that approach.

“Let’s say that was a 12-year-old, what that child could be subject to at school because their name gets out.

“That, to my mind, strikes me as a greater protection than allowing for the release of the child’s name on that one,” the former attorney-general said.

“That person, when they are an adult and want to come along and say, ‘I was sexually abused as a 12-year-old’, sure that’s their right to do that and they want to tell their story. It’s a little bit of a different game to the 11-year-old that’s got to go to primary school and all the kids know.”

Mr Pettingill agreed with Ms Cooper that there was no provision in the law that granted victims the right to waive their anonymity. However, he said this “would be a sensible something to look at” as long as it comes “from the victim, once they are of age”.

“It takes a hell of a lot of courage to stand up and say ‘I was sexually abused’,” he added.

“People carry those secrets for years and it destroys their lives. Every day it destroys their lives, they never get by it and it causes them to turn to drink or drugs, or have family problems, or heaven forbid become offenders themselves. It’s a very precarious path to walk on how you deal with all these things. We have to look at it objectively with regards to protection. We have to look at it subjectively with regard to the victims and their families.”

According to Ms Cooper, the legislation prevents the naming of a convicted sexual offender if that would lead to the identification of the victim.

“We are suggesting to amend the legislation to give victims or the victims’ families that option,” she said.

“I realise that the stated purpose of the prohibition is the protection of the victim’s identity but we make the point that the law should be amended to allow the victim or the victim’s parents to decide whether the convicted person’s name is published.”

Ms Cooper’s call came after a former police officer was jailed for 15 years for the sexual exploitation of his daughter and incest but the media could not report his name for legal reasons.

“Because of the laws that prevent the media from naming the convicted offender we, the public, will never know who it is that we need to protect our children from,” she said at the time.

At the sentencing of the former officer, Puisne Judge Carlisle Greaves also suggested that Parliament should consider revisiting the Island’s sexual offences laws to bring the maximum penalties for incest and certain other sexual offences in line with those for sexual exploitation.

Mr Justice Greaves noted that the maximum sentence for the sexual exploitation offence was far greater than the maximum sentence for incest, which he described as “inadequate in this jurisdiction”.

Mr Pettingill said he “absolutely” agreed with Mr Justice Greaves’s recommendation, adding: “That’s what you need to hear from judges, that they are making a comment on the law they sit and deal with it every day.

“We as legislators have to have our ears open and say, ‘Hey, this is what the judiciary is saying, this is what we need to do’.

“Same thing with the prosecutors, we need to listen. Same thing with the defence attorneys, we need to listen — there have to be balances.”

Sheelagh Cooper (File photograph)